While the MMA world waits in earnest for the rematch between Israel Adesanya and Robert Whittaker, the middleweight champion’s City Kickboxing (CKB) teammate and virtual “brother”, Mike Mathetha, will finally make his UFC debut.
But Mike Mathetha’s name won’t be announced by Bruce Buffer inside the arena. Instead, you’ll hear only Blood Diamond.
The words “Blood Diamond” carry with them a reference to parts of the history of the diamond trade in Africa and the blood shed to obtain them. A blood or conflict diamond is one that has been stolen or illegally mined and then sold to raise money for rebel militia or terrorist groups. Despite its controversial history, it has become more than just a nickname for Mathetha who has asked the UFC that he be referred to only in that way.
While understanding the genesis of the name seems like an obvious starting point, doing so won’t do the Zimbabwean-born New Zealander’s story justice.
“It was tough times at that point in Zimbabwe, and it was slowly getting worse,” Blood Diamond tells ESPN about his childhood. “But fortunately my dad was able to sense that and move his family to New Zealand before things got really bad.
“There were times when it was just scary to go to school. There were quite a few riots happening and they had to stop us from going to school,” he explains. “When I left the country I was glad it was over. I tried not to think about it too much, but at a young age it was scary. I guess that’s what makes you stronger.
Leaving Zimbabwe provoked mixed emotions, most of all due to the tight bond with his grandparents who had played a significant role in his upbringing. Leaving them behind was tough, but he was left completely heartbroken just as dreams of a visit home began to really percolate.
“I grew up in Harare, but I was born in the second biggest city, Bulawayo,” he explains. “I grew up with my grandparents [as well], but I spent a lot of time in Harare. There was another area where my parents used to live, Hwange, and I used to always travel there on holidays.
“My grandma is still alive, but my grandpa passed away about a year before I planned to go and visit them. It was one of the most devastating times of my life, it comes back to that whole thing of you get given something but it can easily be taken away.
“I had started working, so I was so excited because I could finally make enough money to go and visit my grandparents. But a month into my job, I get that news that my grandad had passed away. It was sad.”
Adjustment to life in New Zealand had its challenges. But his love for all sports — he had played hockey, basketball, soccer and tennis back in Zimbabwe — provided at least one great opportunity to build new friendships, eventually seeing him try New Zealand’s national obsession: rugby.
“Everyone at school is talking about rugby, so I gave that a go,” he said. “I wasn’t the best, I was that guy who got the last five minutes of the game and if I’m lucky I would touch the ball. So I did that throughout all of high school, I wasn’t that good at it but it was a good way to make friends and some of them I am still good friends with today.”
His first foray into combat sports wasn’t borne out of the desire for friendship. It was, in fact, quite the opposite.
“I think it was because of the bullying that was happening in high school that drove me,” he says, noting how his past is similar to Adesanya’s. “When you’re a kid a lot of people are into martial arts because of the Jackie Chan or Bruce Lee movies and you’re like ‘I’d like to learn that’, but they didn’t have too many facilities in Blenheim, the first city I came to in New Zealand. And then when I moved to Auckland I thought I might not need to learn about martial arts because no-one’s going to bully me.
“But unfortunately, I still got bullied at university. I couldn’t live my life in fear so I thought let me try out a combat sport.”